Friday, December 2, 2011

Jordan Challenge 18: Check Out the Madaba Mosaics

From a tourist perspective, the town of Madaba only some 30 kilometers from Amman, is essentially Mosaic Land.  Everyone goes to see the famous remains of the mosaic map of a big chunk of the Middle East -- at least as it was envisioned in 560 A.D.  Much of the map, which sits on the floor in front of the altar of the Saint George Church, is still quite discernible, and every day tour buses deposit their human contents at the gates of the church to check it out before moving on to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo (where Moses is believed to have died -- at the ripe old age of 120).  But the tourists do themselves a disservice because Madaba is a lot more than a mosaic map.  For starters, the map may be the most famous, but it is just the beginning of the mosaics to be viewed.  Where other churches have paintings and stained glass, St. George's is chock full of mosaic scenes from the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, as well as various saints including, of course, the church's namesake.

Here's a portion of the map that is still quite well-preserved...
...and here it is "in context" on the floor of the church.  I had to examine the other art closely to realize that all the other representations are also mosaics.
And here's Chris standing next to the map diagram outside the church that helps make sense of the mosaic inside.

Of course, there needs to be a mosaic of the church's namesake, St. George, carrying on with his slaying duties.

When I was a kid I liked the story of raising Lazarus from the dead, and as an adult AIDS activist I am always reminded of the modern "Lazarus effect" that African activists talked about when anti-retroviral medication finally arrived and started bringing people who were expected to die back to good health and vitality.
There is also a modern-day mosaic art industry and several other churches with their own treasure troves of mosaics, which leads to another Fun Fact About Madaba.  In a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, Madaba has a sizable Christian population, and just about every hotel in town is owned by a different Christian family group who will, if you are as lucky as we were, tell you all about the town and serve you up some delicious homemade fig jam at breakfast.

In addition to its mosaics -- old and new -- Madaba is also home to many rug weavers, and shops that sell their wonderful and colorful work.  It also boasts a sand artist who is simultaneously the fastest and the best artisan of those I have seen in Amman, Petra or Aqaba.  And it has lovely cafes and simple hole-in-wall shops that sell a very tasty and cheap dish of cut-up roasted chicken and shrek bread smeared with a vivid red sumac-based sauce.

Sadly, I lost the scrap of paper I used to write down this sand artist's name.  But I am certainly going to head back to his shop when I return to Madaba because he is amazing!
But I would say that Madaba's greatest commodity is actually its hospitable people.  In a country that rightly prides itself on hospitality, Madaba deserves special mention.  We arrived in the middle of a heavy rain that we'd been caught up in as we were hiking along the road from the Dead Sea in search of a vehicle to take us the rest of the way.  The cab driver who finally picked us up spoke almost no English and did not know his way around Madaba at all.  When he dropped us at the wrong traffic circle for the Black Iris, the hotel we were hoping to stay at the for the night, a small group of men gathered in the rain to confer with us.  They quickly decided that the youngest, a teenager, should accompany us to the hotel to avoid any further problems.  He got us a cab, came with us and insisted on paying the driver.  Then he got out of the cab when we did, pointed out the hotel, welcomed us to Madaba and walked away in the rain after wishing us a great time in his town and refusing to take our money. From that auspicious beginning, we were treated to on-the-house teas, people who walked with us rather than simply pointing out the directions of destinations, and general friendliness everywhere.  No doubt about it, Madaba's got some great treasures on its walls and floors.  But the biggest ones are walking around in its streets. Not the flashiest of Jordan's tourist destinations, but surely in the running as the friendliest.

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